For a genre so preoccupied with tragedy, it’s rare to see a horror movie actually go for sad. Whoever mourned Jamie Lee Curtis’ butchered pals, or the promising young lives cut short by the Vorhees family machete? The dreams, families, and aspirations of these sacrificed innocents are forgotten, if they ever existed, by the end of their kill scene, as we’re carried on to the next victim before their cornflour blood has dried on the walls.
Australian writer/director Jennifer Kent’s feature debut The Babadook is oppressively sad. Following a grieving single mother and her troubled son as their lives start to crack under the influence of a spook summoned from the pages of a children’s book, The Babadook is light on the perils and pop-scares of your typical 21st century haunting flick but heavy on atmosphere and bleak psychological weight. The titular Babadook walks a line, even for the characters, between real, dreamt, and totally metaphorical; far from the creature-feature promised by the trailers, the monster becomes almost incidental to the real story of two precarious lives spiralling out of control just outside society’s view.
But don’t take that to mean it’s not scary. Even ignoring his symbolic baggage, the ‘dook is one of the most chillingly unique movie monsters in ages, and as much as I dislike the attitude that horror movies are only worthwhile when their horror elements are all in service of some Real Issue, Kent succeeds in deftly manipulating the genre’s conventions to make a film that transcends it; compounding the spectral threat of the Babadook with the real dread of her characters’ growing isolation from a harsh and lonely world.
Even better, while most of the good scary films of the past few years attempted to recreate a bygone horror ‘golden-age’ (see: The Conjuring, The Guest, House of the Devil, which, while solid movies, could all have been released 25 years ago with but minor adjustments), The Babadook plunges forward, unafraid to break new ground. The result is the most original, sincere, and meaningful English-language horror film in a very long time.